Ecobibots: 3D Printed Soft Robots Will Hug You and you will Dispose of Them

A 2004 paper by Hod Lipson and Evan Malone was what inspired me to work in 3D printing. The two researchers later showed us that one could make a simple 3D printed robot with 3D printed batteries and actuators. They also developed the open source Fab@Home desktop printer in 2007. Both are a huge inspiration to me so when some of Hod’s papers started to veer off into soft robotics and resilient machines I took a long hard look at the emerging field.

And…I didn’t get it. Around 2010 I concluded that this was a lot of grant-giving for grant giving’s sake stuff. The only real useful application I could see were 3D printed pneumatic soft grippers.  Super Releaser has an excellent history of soft grippers here. Soft grippers could make robots more capable of interacting with people and the world and I saw that as a very interesting development. Hod and others were looking to make the entire robot a soft robot, however. Soft bodies, soft actuators, soft sensors, soft everything. Some of the stuff seemed outlandish with chemical reactions powering pneumatic assemblies and many bioinspired robot fish. It didn’t help that most of this soft robotics stuff initially looked a bit hokey and contrived.

A Soft Robotics Octopus arm also called a muscular hydrostat is a bionspired arm using Shape Memory Alloys. It has been made by the team behind the Octopus Integrating Project that aims to replicate an entire octopus. 
An Animated GIF of a Shape Memory Alloy Soft Robotics Octopus Arm
The Shape Memory Alloy muscle is a copy of the Octopus’ muscle and has been used to move the arm and grasp objects. Shape memory materials are increasingly being 3D printed as well.

It took me years to come to grips with soft robots. I was sceptical for a very long time. I kept reading paper after paper. YouTube videos emerged as well as soft robotics GIFs but still, I thought that this was a detail or a fad. Then I had a thought: what if all the Sci-Fi robots were just silly imaginings made by authors looking to entertain? What if we were wasting billions developing humanoid robots that can walk up stairs just because those are in the movies? That would be insane right? Imagine there were billions of dollars in research funding going towards making Quidditch happen? All of this humanoid robot research is just plain silly. If countries were building a Death Star people would ask questions right? If billions were being spent on AT-AT walkers people would wonder, protest? But, whole industries, countries and tens of thousands of researchers are making C3PO happen and we don’t bat an eye? Look, I want real lightsabers as much as the next guy but we need to be rational. And this whole humanoid robot thing is just like AT-AT walkers and light sabres: cool but stupid, infeasible and unnecessary. It would be cheaper to make a new robot for every floor rather than one that could walk upstairs. Whats the business case for humanoid robots? Why are we developing them?

Why would you give a robot a knife? And why would you need a knife for Oreos?

What if we dispensed with the humanoid robot idea altogether and instead think of functional robots designed for sets of tasks. What if we dropped the one universal Commander Data robot and instead thought of small cheap disposable robots that would live not in a novel but in the real world? Disposable bots, I called them in my mind. Not multi-million dollar Asimos teeteringly kicking a ball but cheap inexpensive robots that would disappear or be thrown away as soon as their task has been completed. Not billions spent making a robot that could walk like a human or some terrifying nightmarish Boston Dynamics Hound of Baskerville’s killbot but rather a descendant of the cheap omnipresent consumer electronics that surround us. If we see how fast consumer drones are developing and assume that chips and sensors will always get cheaper then what will the $5 robots of the future look like? Remember those cheap little RC helicopters that you could buy for $15 that’s the technology paradigm that interests me with regards to robotics. Below we can see a robot fish. This particular one was created by a team at MIT CSAIL as part of their soft robotics research. It describes several methods for making soft robots, in particular, a Fluid Elastomer Actuator. The design is ingenious but as we can see the multitude of fabrication steps required as well as the different materials and processes will make this cost prohibitive.

A diagram showing the power system that drives the ribbed soft hydraulic actuator.

    

How would we be able to make the robot equivalent of Crocs? I always like to use Crocs as thought experiment fuel. The reason is that I could have never have come up with the idea for Crocs. The only way I could have come up with Crocs, was if the starting question is “how can I make the world’s cheapest shoes?” Or how can we make the least expensive shoes imaginable using molded closed cell foam (and later TPU)?  So if we Crocsify robots we come up with a robot that would be made in one single production step out of the fewest number of parts or materials in that production step out of inexpensive materials. That one step would approximate the functionality created through many steps and materials in current devices. What would fit that technology path and outperform current technology at lower cost? And then, only then, did I go “Oh Fuck, soft robotics is totally going to be a thing.” 3D print all the robots, recycle robot, reprint new robot. No nightmare fuel Boston Hellhound but a purposeful efficient cheap printable soft robot. No national prestige project violin playing nonsensebot but rather you and I 3D printing robots at home.

Tolly is a 3D printed soft actuator that works on compressed air filling chambers. This was made essentially in one step on a Stratasys Objet Polyjet machine.

I now understand that bioinspiration is a good thing and that in order to mimic nature more perfectly soft parts are required in many areas. I also understand that a flexible and soft robot could have very different use areas where it could outperform a rigid counterpart. I’m excited by self-configurable robots that can adapt to tasks or circumstances. It would be a breakthrough to have a robot powered by heat or through photosynthesis. The idea that robots would scavage for their own energy or be permitted to morph continually would be interesting as well.

The below robot uses 3D printing for circuits and a microfluidics.

Small robots in the bloodstream, unobtrusive robots for spying, cobots that are near people all the time could all benefit from soft robotics. Probably swimming robots that mimic fish will be far more efficient than conventional underwater robots and maybe robots that fly like birds or insects will be as well.

The Wyss Institute jumping robot uses 3D printed gradient materials.

Nature takes a razor to fat. Shapes, structures and creatures in the natural world are very efficient. 30 Kilo of blubber is enough to power a Great White Shark for 11 days. Canada Geese eat around 1.8 Kilo of grass per day. A Goose can fly, is biodegradable and its waste is a Kilo of carbon per day. A soft robot design coupled with a biological energy creation mechanism could lead to a very efficient class of robot indeed. This class of robots would be power efficient and also environmentally efficient as well. A bioinspired design may make its form more efficient but a biological or chemical “engine” will also make the robot very efficient to operate. The resulting design will also be efficient in terms of its waste and end of life disposal as well. So not biomimicry to come up with a form but biomimicry across the lifespan of the device. The resulting robot would be ecological and bioinspired, soft and efficient. They would use bacteria, sunlight or harvesting to find energy. We could call them ecobibots. This would be a huge step forward in robotics development.

Ideonella Sakaiensis is a bacteria that can degrade PET plastic. Would this not be a good thing to use as fuel for a robot?

Bacteria are now being engineered to feed off waste or things such as methane. For a methane-rich environment, a methane harvesting soft robot could be very efficient. Want a sea patrol robot then perhaps it could feed off algal blooms? Want a robot for in the desert then maybe the huge fluctuations in temperature there could be used to power the robot via a kind of Stirling Engine.

Regular temperature differences during the night and day could also be used to regulate or power chemical reactions in the robot to power it. Have you heard of Click Heat? It’s a sodium acetate heat pack. You click it and a reaction heats the pack, afterwards, you can boil it and then use it again. Wouldn’t that be a nifty kind of chemical mechanism to power a robot?

A diagram of an Atmos clock. 1 is the expansion chamber.

The Atmos is a clock by Jaeger Le Coultre that can perhaps work indefinitely. The Atmos works on temperature changes. A chamber filled with ethylene chloride gas in the clock expands and contracts in response to temperature fluctuations in your room. Expansion and contraction in turn wind the clock’s mainspring. Imagine a soft robot powered with a similar mechanism. Wifi signals abound and there are devices being made that let people harvest energy from these devices. Hydrothermal vents are surrounded by chemosynthetic bacteria that turn sulphur/hydrogen sulphide into food to sustain ecosystems on the ocean floor. Could we perhaps combine soft robots with chemosynthesis to obtain nutrients for the robot or indeed organic material that it could use to improve itself? And could we then pretty please use carbon dioxide as an input material?

The combination of new ways of generating power with soft robotics to create more efficient robots would mean taking biomimicry/biomimetics and using it to not optimize form but optimize energy usage. To make a soft robotics Asimo will take quite some time and a series of technological breakthroughs. But, what if we just need a soft robotics Roomba? Does that thing really need all those optics, batteries and a plethora of parts? What if we just had a Squeegee that gradually moved around our livingrooms picking up dust? No sensors, no chips just a Squeegee that moves by itself. Once a month you wash it under the sink.

The Golem Project was Hod Lipson and Jordan Pollack was a 2000 project that showed the automated fabrication and automated design of robots. The project also worked according to evolutionary principles.

In other applications: what if robots were cheaply spread around an oil spill and evolved in keeping with the task. What if these evolutionary and adaptive robots were easy to recycle? You could just continually recycle the ones that are not performing and let the others carry on. Many soft robots are being made through 3D printing. 3D printing continues to expand to make TPU, PCL, PA and other flexible materials possible. In other developments circuits and conductive materials can also be printed. 3D printing of magnets, technical ceramics and actuators also are being improved. Several soft robots have been entirely or almost completely 3D printed. 3D printing is the most obvious assembly and manufacturing technology for soft robotics. These technologies will continue to reinforce themselves and improve apace. Ever since my thought experiment I’ve become a true believer in soft robotics. Of course, this has to do with the things I’ve mentioned above but most of all with the fact that ecobibots, soft robots or their equivalents will be cheap.

This soft gait robot was also made using 3D printing.

Soft robotics has the potential to make robots made in few manufacturing steps out of very inexpensive materials such as polymers. They’ll use fewer metals and less expensive materials and less material overall. Soft robotics has the potential to make robotics cheap. True ecobibots that would additionally procure their own power and be recyclable.  In essence, you would have disposable robotics which would also lower costs. I finally believe in soft robotics but not because it could be revolutionary but because it can be cheap. If we look at developments in 3D printers and 3D printing materials soft robots could also be manufactured by the hundreds of thousands of desktop 3D printer operators worldwide and that would be very exciting indeed.

This shape memory coil and 3D printed soft robot was optimized for low cost manufacturing.

So far, however, most soft robots are conceptually amazing but seem to serve no purpose other than to demonstrate soft robotics. In order to really let soft robotics hit home, a useful soft robot would have to serve some purpose. It should also seem like a complex but easy to explain breakthrough. This after all, with a few million in PR money, was how the “3D printing revolution” happened. So we need a soft robotics demonstrator that would play well on Buzzfeed and top ten lists. Sad perhaps, but without adequate demonstrators of the capability of this technology, will remain dormant. Real wide interest will come once media can convince people that this is something relevant for the consumer right now. Once this occurs then we can speak of a Soft Robotics Revolution. So what say you? Let’s have at it? I’m a believer now, just registered the domain name: softroboticsjobs.com

We Were All Makers Once

My initial explorations of technology lead me to take things apart and see how they worked. This is more difficult today. Increasingly technology is encapsulated in chips, boards, and software. Hidden. There is more under the hood as the hood becomes harder to lift. The things that surround us increase in complexity as well as obscure their methods evermore. Today opening up an object exposes not its inner mechanical logic and function but unveils a mystifying path of copper and chips.

Even the simplest things are Antikythera mechanisms; purpose lost to the depths in a sea of complexity. We throw away more complex goods every day at faster rates. Our landfill becoming more beautiful as each day passes. As our devices increase in sophistication, our immediate comprehension of them diminishes. Makers rise against this tide, wishing to understand, hack, change, appropriate, and most of all genuinely own the chipsam and
jetsam of modern life. I think it is wrong to conclude that the maker movement is some recent endeavour, however. Dreamed up at Faires around the world. We were all makers once.

I picked out the first gray hairs from the dark blonde, using tweezers. A tool I am very unfamiliar with. Was going to a Fashion TV Party. Figured that I didn’t want to give a model a Freudian body check at an inconvenient moment. Navigating the 3D space above my head in reverse I felt an immediate empathy towards the well-practiced plucks women do apace. Also, compassion towards the inept tinkerer before me in the mirror caught up in a life filled with screens and keyboards his dexterity excellent in FPS games but negligible with any real tool. His hands more often busy moving a cursor across a screen than things in the real world. I also thought through my life.

We think of ourselves growing wiser, smarter and more experienced. We think of year by year being better able to handle the increased load that this world levies upon our shoulders. A gradual Atlas rising, bearing new continents, mountain range by mountain range. But we lose something as well. In this growing up. This long-term thinking. This analysis. This experience. It makes us lose the innocence of wonder. In response, many suggest to “seize the day.” I hate Carpe Diem. The fatalism and nihilism of it. The desperation. Opening up the world’s last vintage of Beaujolais Primeur as the Aliens attack. A frantic Waltz on Titanic teak as the bows burrow beneath the waves. A bear hug and bright whistle before we go over the top, escaping our muddy trenches for a brief moment of pounding earth under the open sun before we are cut down by machine gun. The desperate thrashing of a fish in a drying puddle.

We are young until we stop dreaming of the future. We are old when we dream only of a past not realized. Carpe Diem is a nightmare to me, a frenzied and pathetic plea to blithely spin the Roulette wheel. We wait our breaths entombed, for the plastic ball to deliver us from idle hope. Somehow this desperate hollow tic, tac, toc will place the ball underneath the right number and make everything OK. Anyhow if we keep joyously emptily tossing/spinning this ball, it will turn out alright in the end. A gambler’s idle hope, leaving the outcome to the fates. If you chose to be a passenger in this life, so be it. But, don’t you dare complain about landing at the wrong airport. Don’t you dare think that a last minute adjustment or a frenetic ever present tugging at the throttle will get you where you need to go. Seize the day all you will and all you want, but you will cling hungrily to only 1/29,000th of your existence. Rather than seizing a particular 24 hour period at a time, I believe it would be better to change our attitudes and frame of reference for all of our time.

Have you ever watched a child who is unable to walk trying to stand up? Not for one moment but for many across many an hour? They don’t do giving up. I don’t mean this in a Marine Corps ooooraaah “quitters never win” kind of way. It is not so much “failure is not an option” but rather “failure is not a concept I am familiar with at this point. I am trying to reach the ball on the couch and will continue to do this with all my energy until I am either distracted or fall asleep.”

Adults persevere, grit their teeth and pick themselves up with determination. Adults motivate themselves and cheer themselves on as they go once more into the breach. For adults, the fear of failure and not accomplishing a task often drives them. For adults, it is in the face of opposition that we win. For long-term goals, these may be useful skills, but as an attitude in life, it pits you against the world and the world against you. The planet becomes an obstacle course to be defeated, rather than a garden of wonder to be explored.

Small children, they just keep on going. Try stand, tumble over. Try stand. Fall. Try stand. Fall. Rinse repeat. They just want to know what’s on top of that table. Want to see the view from the couch. Want to reach something out of reach. There is no darnit, no feeling of lack of accomplishment rushing over you like a cold riptide come out at you from beneath your depths. They just keep on going. Again and again and again. Their wonder and curiosity keep them at it. Gumption and effort are natural byproducts of their many quests and in seemingly limitless supply. The world is not filled with things that can not be done or should not be done but rather things not known, things not explored and things not seen. It is a wonderful thing to see the world like this, not in terms of “seize the day” but rather in terms of “let your curiosity seize you.” Letting your curiosity guide you to do things for curiosity’s sake. In other words, live not as if each day is your last but rather if it were your first. The wide-eyed sponge taking in information, learning, exploring, experimenting, seeing what in this world does what. This to me is what making is. And, all children are makers.

Central to their lives is the curiosity-driven construction, destruction, tinkering, and analysis of the objects in their path. What does this thing do? Can I eat it? Is it strong? What happens when I throw it? You might laugh at a kid hitting a toy against his head or biting everything but how exactly would you go about making a Vickers Hardness scale or determining something’s approximate tensile strength without the prerequisite tools? How would you right now with your bare hands impact test something? Life is one big Beagle journey or Star Trek away mission where everything is new and unknown. Experimentation, observation, and curiosity the only tools. As dexterity increases and the mechanical properties and uses of many materials have been explored the child sets out to truly create. By the time they are given crayons or other materials to formally make they’ve been doing it for years of course.

Adult minds separate and categorize, the world neatly subdivided. But, kids have been, to possible chagrin, making with food, dirt, sand and anything malleable they can get a hold of for years. You might not like your child playing with their food but must admit that of all the materials they come into contact with many food items represent a tantalizing opportunity to make. If almost all the things you touch are hard plastic or wood, then mashed potato upon contact will instantly be recognized as an exciting material to create something with. Meanwhile, it will take some years for them to receive a similar material that has been cleared for the ‘make things’ category called Play-doh. This upon closer inspection is indeed more colorful and strong than mashed potato but does not taste as good.

Kids create unbounded. Unworried about the result. Caught up in the creative process, modulating, repairing, changing tack, a whimsical journey with no end. They make and make, creating everything without fear of failure. They are exploring, trying, learning again and again.

Then we start growing up. We start to notice that Mary makes much nicer paintings than we do. We realize we would never be van Gogh. We start to compare ourselves and our output to the world at large. Start to give up because we don’t have certain skills, rather than just continue exploring only to discover that we had learned these skills along the way. We start to measure ourselves. Grade ourselves. Compare. Feel that we had failed. We worry that the things we made were ugly. We doubt our ability to do certain things. As our knowledge of the world increased our belief in our abilities decreased. Part of this is encountering realism, longer-term goals and learning more. But, a part is also that we stop doing for doing’s sake. We stop exploring, being as curious, being so unbridled and unbounded. We categorize this world and place ourselves in these categories limiting the type of things we do. We start to touch things less and let our lives revolve around screens. Passive watchers observing stories unfold rather than active makers of things. And we do “get ahead, ” but we also lose so much.

Oh, to live each day as if it were your very first. Wide-eyed, imagination unchecked and curiosity absolute. To just be busy with one’s hands. To understand and learn. To make, create and break all of the things then remake them once again. To eat Play-Doh and make something with mashed potato. Make art without wondering what a critic would say. Letting your curiosity seize you into doing something for doing’s sake. This is the reclaiming of a part of your former self. This is the reconnection you have with your wide-eyed past. It is this that you rediscover when you become a maker. We were all makers once, and then we grew up.